Gulf Times – By Arno Maierbrugger, Bangkok Correspondent
The country plans to massively increase its halal food exports to Muslim countries in Southeast Asia, as well to the Middle East, and focus on the halal tourism industry by stepping up the number of Muslim-friendly hospitality facilities in the country and training hospitality staff how to cater to Muslim guests.
Large Japanese food companies such as Ajinomoto, Asahi Beverage, Kewpie and Umakane are all expanding their product range with halal products, and some firms are also interested in entering other halal sectors such as pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and Islamic finance, according to the Japan External Trade Organisation (Jetro).
The initiative of the country whose Muslim population is just around 200,000 out of a total population of 127mn can be seen in the light of its efforts to tap new business sectors to reflate its stagnating economy.
Japan is now working on leveraging growing demand from the Muslim world by increasing the output of products with halal certification, supported by institutions such as the Halal Development Foundation of Japan and the Japan Halal Association. The latter has already been approved as a halal certifying body in Japan by the influential Department of Islamic Development in Malaysia (Jakim). Another institution, the Japan Muslim Association, has been recognised as a halal certification body by Indonesia’s top Muslim clerical body, the Indonesian Ulema Council. Mohammad Zubair, general secretary of Halal Development Foundation of Japan, said at the inaugural Japan Halal Summit held on August 4-6 on Tokyo that the bodies are working together to create one single Japanese halal standard that should be accepted in every Muslim country in the future.
Japan is known for its high-end food market that encompasses meat, chicken, packaged and ready-made meals, frozen processed food, dairy, spices and soups prepared at high quality standards. It has also a broad range of traditional food products that qualify for halal certification, such as miso paste, variants of soy sauce and instant noodles, teriyaki, sushi, ramen, sashimi and even locally grown rice.
There is now also a growing number of halal restaurants in Japan catering to Muslim customers, reflecting the fact that more and more tourists of Islamic faith are visiting the country. According to the Japan National Tourist Organisation, more than 300,000 tourists visited Japan in 2013, more than double the 140,000 in 2011.
While Muslim tourists predominantly come from the Muslim nations of Malaysia and Indonesia — Japan has recently eased visa requirements for both nations — there was also a slight growth in visitors from the Middle East, the organisation said.
It is estimated that Muslim visitors to Japan could reach one million in the year 2020, more than triple the 2013 level, according to a forecast by Singapore-based CrescentRating, an organisation promoting global halal travel. To support this trend, Japanese tourism authorities are holding seminars in a number of tourist regions in the country to train hoteliers and restaurant owners how to cater to Muslim guests who have distinct needs when travelling, which are — apart from halal food — also prayer rooms at airports, shopping malls and hotels and other appropriate arrangements.